POLITICS
10/17/2020 05:45 EDT

Is Gen Z Going To Get Screwed, Too?

The economic pain of the COVID-19 crisis could scar another generation financially, on top of all of its other woes.

ILLUSTRATION: ISABELLA CARAPELLA / HUFFPOST; PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES
Gen z

The kids are not all right. 

It’s been seven months since schools in the U.S. shut down to deal with the pandemic and the economy cratered, and across the country, a generation is falling behind. 

Young children are suffering learning losses. Some are simply failing to log in to online school. Enrollment in public schools is down. 

Teenagers are at risk of dropping out. College students, particularly poor kids, are also struggling to stay in school. Young adults just starting out in the work world are facing a wrecked job market with few opportunities.

If policymakers don’t act with urgency, the scars could be long-lasting; so much potential will be lost, so much talent wasted. More specifically, Gen Z could be headed down the same path as millennials, facing depressed wages for a lifetime, with homeownership out of reach, the trauma of a financial collapse trailing them for years and years. (That’s on top of the increasing urgency of climate change.)

During the Great Recession, policymakers tightened their belts, imposing austerity measures that stretched out the economic recovery and hurt millennial workers for a lifetime. “The scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression,” HuffPost’s Michael Hobbes wrote in 2017.

Millennials saw their earnings reduced by 13% from 2007-2017 because of the recession, according to a paper released last year from an economist at the Census Bureau. That’s compared to 9% for Gen Xers and 7% for Boomers.

History could repeat itself. 

“It’s like the Great Recession. Once austerity took hold and we didn’t have stimulus, that set the pain for millennials in deep. Now we’re talking about doing it again to another generation,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

Students Are Falling Behind

Increased spending on education could ease the pandemic pain students and young adults are feeling, economists and experts in education told HuffPost. Schools need help right now to do pandemic schooling, with all the technological and staffing costs that brings. State and city budgets are on the brink, stretched thin by shutdowns. Federal funding is required.  

But the news from Congress is not encouraging. Lawmakers and the White House appear trapped in a stalemate. There’s talk about too much spending already. Senate Republicans are focused on pushing through a Supreme Court nominee. 

In the meantime, the achievement gaps between rich and poor students only seem to be growing. Researchers have projected that students will accrue months of learning loss during COVID-19, and that this loss could be especially acute for low-income, Black and brown students. 

Amina Scott, a single parent in Boston, is seeing these gaps play out in her 8-year-old son’s classroom. He is bused to school in the affluent suburban district of Newton through a voluntary desegregation program. And he’s already started complaining that he feels like he’s fallen behind classmates with greater resources, who may have more help from parents or access to tutoring, in the past few months. He’s currently participating in the school’s “hybrid format,” which involves in-person learning just two days a week.

The district has mostly two-parent households, where one adult can potentially help their children with schooling on virtual days, Scott said. 

“I don’t have that luxury,” said Scott, who works full-time as a controller for one nonprofit, and as a freelance accountant for two others. 

She suspects other kids are getting more one-on-one time with adults to go over schoolwork. Now Scott’s looking for programs to help supplement her son’s learning. Most of them are closed. 

“It’s a little scary; there aren’t that many resources for us,” Scott said. 

“These are the basic foundational years of his life, the stuff you learn in this part of elementary school are going to predict how you perform in middle and high school.”

“I worry my son could fall behind long term.”

I think we are really screwing this up for kids.Lauren Bauer, Brookings Institution fellow

Some kids are inevitably going to fall through the cracks, and it is going to be children from lower-income families.

A report out earlier this month from the Brookings Institution found that 7.1% of kids age 16-19 were neither in school nor working between January and May 2020. That’s compared to 5.5% during the Great Recession, explained Lauren Bauer, a fellow at Brookings who worked on the report. 

It’s too soon to have data for this fall, but she doesn’t expect a huge improvement. “I think we are really screwing this up for kids,” Bauer said. “Our eye is not on the ball right now. The ball is making sure that America’s children are safe, learning and not hungry. And anything in either the public health space or the economic policy space that doesn’t center those goals is neither serious stimulus nor serious economic policy and is gambling with their futures.”

Children are already suffering.

“I believe some students low-key developed some coping mechanisms that now are hard to break,” said Lazarina Luna, an advocate counselor at West Brooklyn Community High School in Brooklyn, New York, working with a program for youth who are at risk of dropping out. “One of them has been sleeping in all day, or playing video games all day.” The students were already vulnerable, and the pandemic has only brought on more challenges.

But as state budgets face steep reductions and the federal government stalls a stimulus package, Luna’s program, called “Learning to Work,” is at risk of losing funding from the New York City Department of Education, leaving a group of at-risk students without necessary support. She watches her students struggling with school and also struggling to find work that could help supplement their families’ diminishing income.  

Economists are trying to put a price on school closures. Earlier this week, academics at the Penn Wharton Budget Model, a public policy center inside the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, released a report that said by Oct. 1, students in grades 1-12 lost between 4-5% of their lifetime earnings due to school closures. And the numbers inch up for every month this pandemic continues.

Those numbers add up. The report estimates that K-12 students in the U.S. already lost $2.8 trillion in future wages from school closures through September. 

It is a tragedy and horrible to get sick and die from COVID. ... It’s also not so great that kids are at home and doing god knows what and missing out on their future.Efraim Berkowitz, director of computational analysis at the Penn Wharton Budget Model

But they’re not certain. “This is a first pass,” said Efraim Berkowitz, director of computational analysis at the Penn Wharton Budget Model, who led the analysis. His team did not try and narrow the numbers demographically to compare low-income students to more privileged kids. 

And he acknowledges that it might seem a little ghoulish to put a price tag on the costs of keeping kids home, safe from a deadly virus. However, he hoped to at least make the tradeoffs of keeping kids home more clear.

It is a tragedy and horrible to get sick and die from COVID. I am terrified. That is horrible,” Berkowitz said. “The fact of the matter is it’s also not so great that kids are at home and doing god knows what and missing out on their future, on learning.”

There is room for hope. For younger kids, education losses could be reversed. Experts know how to bring kids back from a crisis, said Emma Garcia, an economist who specializes in education at EPI. 

“You need flexible solutions, targeted programs,” she said, including extra resources to help with online learning to get through the pandemic and measures to help kids recover once we’re in a new stage. She detailed a raft of other proposals in a paper published last month.

Otherwise it’s going to be 2030 and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, what happened to those students during the COVID pandemic?’” she said.

The economic effects of the coronavirus economy on young workers could persist for years, EPI’s Gould warned in a report released Wednesday. 

Young Adults Can’t Find Work

Noah Sussman’s story should sound familiar to anyone who graduated during the last economic downturn.

The 22-year-old graduated from Ohio State in May. And instead of moving to a big city and living with his friends, working at some entry-level marketing job in sports as he’d planned, he returned to his parents’ house in Cleveland.

Fifty-two percent of adults ages 18-29 are now living with their parents, the most at any time since the Great Depression, according to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center.

It’s great for families to support each other in troubled times, but when young adults can’t launch on their own, they don’t start new families or buy homes. That drags the economy down for everyone.

Sussman is doing just fine at home. He knows he’s lucky. His parents are happy to get the extra time with him; they’re watching a lot of sports together. But he’d rather start his professional life; he’s applied to around 150 jobs. 

“The level of competition for entry level jobs is insane right now,” he wrote in a message to HuffPost. “It’s extremely difficult to set myself apart from other candidates, especially since all my experience is in sports and entertainment, an industry that is being decimated by COVID-19.” 

Unemployment rates for young adults are always relatively high, as it’s more difficult for inexperienced workers to break into the job market generally. 

But they jumped to eye-popping levels this spring. The overall jobless rate for those ages 16-24 hit 24.4% from 8.4% a year prior, according to the EPI report. That’s compared to 11.3% for those older than 25. The rates were even higher for Black, Hispanic, and Asian American-Pacific Islander workers. 

Part of the reason young workers were so affected was that job losses struck heavily in sectors where they’re already overrepresented, like the restaurant industry.

Sussman said he’s widened his outlook from sports marketing to basically anything he can get. He came close this summer when a national paint company offered him a job in sales. But they took their job offer back after a hiring freeze. 

He wasn’t super keen on working in the paint industry anyway. “It’s a blessing.” 

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